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Brussels Admits Scientific Flaws In Its Decision To Ground Flights

The crisis that closed much of Europe’s airspace for five days finally showed signs of easing yesterday as officials acknowledged flaws in the computer models that led them to ground thousands of flights after a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Amid pressure from airlines, which are losing an estimated $200m in revenues a day, European Union transport ministers said they planned to start opening air corridors to bring home some of the hundreds of thousands of stranded travellers.

However, fresh uncertainty emerged last night over the resumption of flights at UK airports after Britain’s Met Office warned that a new ash cloud was heading south after eruptions had intensified. “This just shows how much we are at the mercy of the volcano,” a spokesman said.

Dutch authorities were ready to allow flights last night after ministers reached a deal to cut the size of the no-fly zone in place since last week.

The moves came as European officials in Brussels said many of the flights that had been grounded would have gone ahead under US standards.

“The science behind the model we’re running at the moment is based on certain assumptions where we do not have clear scientific evidence,” said Matthias Ruete, the European Commission’s director-general for mobility and transport.

The early results of 40 or so test flights conducted over the weekend by European airlines had suggested that the safety risks were less than the computer models indicated. The admission is likely to bolster critics, who say the authorities have shown excessive caution in the wake of the eruption last week.

Airlines stepped up demands for compensation yesterday.

In the UK, chief executives of every major airline wrote to the government to warn that the situation had become “untenable”.

Giovanni Bisignani, head of the International Air Transport Association, said: “We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction with how governments have managed it – with no risk assessment, no consultation, no co-ordination and no leadership.”

The crisis has led to the cancellation of about 82,000 flights, affecting nearly 7m people.

Financial Times 20 April 2010